The resurgence of 30 Rock this season has been due to any number of factors, but one of the more underrated ones is the show rediscovering its sense of playfulness. 30 Rock has always been something close to a live-action cartoon, where nearly anything can happen, and the characters can withstand all manner of abuse and pop right back (well, maybe not PHYSICAL abuse, but you get what I mean). This season, however, that playfulness has increasingly stretched to the show’s format itself. The earlier “Live Show” was a lot of fun, and tonight, the show turns itself into a Bravo-style reality show in a way that’s incredibly faithful to the source material. Is it too faithful? That’s going to be up to how much Bravo stuff you watch. I watch very little of it and didn’t catch all of the references, but my wife, who’s been a Bravo fan for years, was laughing at how perfect some of the gags were. (An example: Every time there’s a flashback to illustrate a point, it’s in black and white, just like on a Real Housewives show.)
Fortunately, the episode wasn’t just about what it was satirizing. There was also a really funny plot underpinning most of this. Angie Jordan’s reality show cameras have infiltrated 30 Rock and, specifically, the TGS set, where they prompt fake conflicts and false characterizations galore, up to and including portraying Jack Donaghy as a “clumsy, gay flatulent.” As Angie has her way with the staff and Jenna tries to find a way to make herself the stealth star of yet another show, Liz tries to get Tracy to come back to the United States from Africa because his absence is hurting the show. Meanwhile, Pete hatches a scheme to get the show shut down and collect insurance money, thus allowing the staff to get paid for doing no work. (This is all incredibly timely in the wake of the Charlie Sheen situation, a nice bit of serendipity for the show, which had to work Tracy Morgan’s absence for health reasons into the show well before Sheen went on his rampage.)
The fun starts right from the opening credits, which are made to look like, well, a Bravo show, then cut to a crawl along the bottom of the screen that suggests the regular cast is only “guest starring” in the episode. (Another nice touch: The episode is “written” by one of the show’s writers.) The commitment to the Bravo format is really impressive, and I love the way the show weaves in a bunch of new characters we’ve never seen before, including D’Fwan and Randi, all of whom are regulars on Queen Of Jordan but will likely never appear again on 30 Rock. It gives the pleasantly discombobulating sensation of somehow watching an episode from an alternate universe, where 30 Rock doesn’t exist, but this show does, and the show’s commitment to the bit is what really seals the deal.
It’s also what causes the main problem with the episode. By having to toss storylines to all of the new characters, as well as the bulk of the regulars (like much of this season, Kenneth gets the least to do, simply wandering around the edges of the story), and that means that plenty of storylines get short shrift. All of the Queen Of Jordan regulars are touched and moved by the fact that Frank and his former teacher—played by Susan Sarandon!—rekindle their relationship after she’s been in jail for years, but the storyline itself comes and goes too quickly to really earn any of its payoffs about Frank abandoning his boyhood pursuits to win back his first love. (That said, the way the episode ends with this story still open-ended suggests that Sarandon and this storyline will be back, so it’s not that big of a concern.) Similarly, Jenna’s “Look, I’m an alcoholic!” plot flits by too quickly to really register, though I did like how she tried to close out her intervention with a song.
Fortunately, the two A plots—Jack tries to get the reality show crew to portray him in a more flattering light, and Liz tries to trick Angie into getting Tracy to come back—were very funny and gave the show’s two leads actual stories that mostly dovetailed with the new format of the episode. (I really loved the on-screen title introducing Jack as “Tracy’s gay boss” late in the episode.) In particular, the Liz storyline was unexpectedly moving, as Liz’s farcical attempts to get Tracy to come back—including writing an e-mail on Angie’s computer while pretending (poorly) to be sleepwalking—led to the revelation that Angie has been trying to get Tracy to come back to no avail. Now, obviously, we’re going to have Tracy back before long, but the show has always portrayed Tracy’s family vaguely seriously, so it’s nice to see that his absence is having an effect on his wife, even if she plays the powerful lead for the Queen Of Jordan cameras.
Which all brings me back to the central gimmick of the episode. I found the Queen Of Jordan stuff mostly very funny, but my wife found it drop-dead hilarious because she knew what it was aping. One of the risks in doing an off-format episode, particularly for something this specific, is that some of the jokes will get lost for the people who don’t follow the show you’re aping. “Queen Of Jordan” didn’t disappear so far up its own rabbit hole that it was completely inscrutable to people who don't watch every single episode of every single Real Housewives show, and there were lots of funny jokes for us Bravo neophytes. But the weird distancing effect many of you felt on “Live Show” was here in full force for me, and while I liked the episode quite a bit, I wouldn’t say it’s one of my all-time favorites. It was very well-done for what it was, but I have so little of a relationship with what it was that some of it still missed the mark for me, personally.
- Nathan is off filming his own reality show, which will air on Fuel TV next fall and be entitled Rabin’s Melodies. The premise is that he’s invited to become a choir director to a bunch of inner-city kids with no formal training, and when he gets to the school, he realizes just how in over his head he is. Keith Phipps and Scott Tobias guest star as Nathan’s colleagues who constantly talk about how in over his head he is. Anyway, that’s why you got me this week. He will triumphantly return whenever there’s another new 30 Rock.
- The on-screen titles are some of the best gags in this episode: “Pete: Bald, Powerless.” “Liz: Another Person.”
- I also liked that we eventually got a little interstitial screen showing Jack dancing, as opposed to just the ones for D’Fwan, Angie, and Randi. And D’Fwan’s right: Jack IS a terrible dancer.
- That’s not the Princeton fight song, but wouldn’t it be great if it was?
- I love the casting of Susan Sarandon as a registered sex offender. More shows should cast Oscar winning actors and actresses as registered sex offenders. The Middle: I hear F. Murray Abraham and Mira Sorvino are available!
- "Who the fuck are the Beatles?"
- "Guest starring Tina Fey."
- "As you know, my single, 'My Single Is Dropping,' is dropping."
- "Actually, legal says we can't use the word best."
- "For your information, I am a Christian illiterate."
- "What happened to Frank is AWESOME."
- "I refuse to wear anything in my size or appropriate for my age."
- "What about Hitler? No one ever talks about his paintings!"
- "I like bands... like Amy Grant."
- "I'm not just a gay hairdresser; I'm also a homosexual party planner."
- "Portia reads the papers."
- "We all did. It was the '70s."
- "Switch hitter. Pitcher. Catcher. Whatever the boy's needed."
- "That's some white nonsense."
- "I let them have their reunion date at the aerobics studio I bought with the money I got after that cop shot me."
- "Otherwise, who would wake me up for work?"
- "I thought this was a meeting to discuss your spinoff where you're a matchmaker for wealthy dogs."
- "It's a first draft."
- "I'm contractually obligated to pull out some bitch's weave eight more times this season."
- "It's one of the benefits of being in love with a registered sex offender."
- "Skeletor's not my favorite. You are."
- "If this reality show chooses to portray me as a clumsy, gay flatulent, so be it."
- "At Princeton, I played Maria in an all-male production of West Side Story."
- "I miss my weird love."
- "I only pass gas once a year atop a mountain in Switzerland."